Feature

Sep 2007

What’s the story?

The telling of stories to children is universal to humanity, transcending national and cultural boundaries, and in all societies the storyteller plays an important social role. The stories we hear as children define us as adults: we learn from example our standards of heroism, virtue, and fairness; and, of course, we learn of villainy and cowardice to be avoided. A nation’s character is due as much to the stories its children hear as to anything.

Scotland's storytelling heritage

Scotland's storytelling heritage is an old one. Many of the traditional tales of the land predate the age of mass literacy, and were passed down orally through uncounted generations. One of the first scholars to give Scottish oral folklore serious consideration, and compile the tales in written form, was John Francis Campbell (known in Gaelic as Iain Frangan Caimbeul) who published a four-volume compendium, , in English and Gaelic between 1860 and 1862. Included were such tales as The Battle of the Birds, in which a King's son undertakes a great adventure and marries a giant's daughter, and , in which a fisherman's son shames a cowardly general, marries a princess, and takes revenge on a wicked mermaid.

The reach of the written word expanded over time with ever improving public education, and the traditional fireside narratives diminished in importance, if not in charm, as the age of the author dawned. Creators of new fiction had the opportunity, for the first time in modern history, to tell their stories to a wide audience made up not just of a local circle, or a literate elite, but of ordinary people across the country and beyond. At a time when the distractions of television and computer games were as yet undreamt-of, the youth of the day craved literature. Two of the best-loved children's authors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whose work remains universally popular even up to the present, were the Scottish writers Robert Louis Stevenson and James Matthew Barrie.

Capturing imaginations

Stevenson captured the imaginations of generations of children with his heart-racing adventure novels and, one of the most celebrated works in the history of children's literature, Treasure Island. This swashbuckling tale of derring-do and buried treasure was inspired by a fictitious map of a pirate island painted by Stevenson's thirteen-year-old stepson on a family holiday to the Highlands in 1881. "Oh, for a story about it!" he yearned, and was rewarded with a literary classic that established the conventions for the raft of pirate fiction that has imitated (but never bettered) it over the succeeding years.

James Matthew Barrie, better known to posterity as J.M. Barrie, began his literary career writing peculiarly Scottish novels set in his native Kirriemuir, which he referred to as "Thrums", but found international success and acclaim with his immortal (figuratively and literally!) creation, . Originally written as a play the story has been ceaselessly adapted, first into a novel by Barrie himself, and subsequently on stage as a popular pantomime and as a musical (with score by Leonard Bernstein), on film in live-action and animated versions, and repeatedly for television. In an act of admirable philanthropy, Barrie gave the copyright on Peter Pan (his most lucrative work by a wide margin) to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, ensuring a steady stream of royalty payments. This generous gift was safeguarded by the UK government in 1988, when an Act of Parliament granted the hospital rights to royalties in perpetuity, making Barrie's creation one of only three works in the UK (along with the Authorised Version of the and the Book of Common Prayer) on which the copyright will never expire.

Inspired by Scotland

Another still-popular children's author from that era with a Scottish connection is Beatrix Potter. Her innocent tales of and others were inspired by memories of the small animals that fascinated the young Beatrix, a keen student of nature, during childhood holidays at Dalguise House in Perthshire. Mr McGregor, the long-suffering farmer in the stories, was based on a local resident of Dalguise.

Scotland's proud history of literary achievement is still alive in the twenty-first century. She continues to produce many successful authors, and attracts talent from elsewhere to live and work here.

Publishing success

One great modern children's publishing success in Scotland is the Dundee firm D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd. As well as the Scottish favourites and The Broons, D.C. Thomson have been delighting children across the UK with and The Dandy since 1938 and 1937 respectively, the latter being the longest-running comic in British history. Many a fondly remembered childhood was enlivened by the antics of and Desperate Dan (who, since 2001, has been immortalised in bronze in Dundee's High Street), characters who live on in print to charm another generation of youngsters.

D.C. Thomson also helped launch the career of one of Britain's most successful and prolific children's authors, Jacqueline Wilson. Wilson's first writing job was for D.C. Thomson's girls' magazine . In a long career, she has sold over twenty million copies, and garnered numerous awards – including the Smarties Prize and the Guardian Children's Fiction Award – and earned the title of Children's Laureate for the years 2005-2007.

Remembering Carnegie

Among the most prestigious prizes awarded for achievement in children's writing is the Carnegie Medal (named in honour of the great Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who helped build more than 2,500 libraries around the world), awarded annually by the Youth Libraries Group of CLIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals), the professional body of UK librarians. Since its inception in 1937, the prize has been gratefully received by such eminent figures as Arthur Ransome and C.S. Lewis.

More recently, it was presented to Scottish librarian and author of young-adult fiction Theresa Breslin in 1994 for , about a boy struggling to cope with his dyslexia and family troubles. Her career has also seen her work included on the American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults list and New York Public Library's Books for the Teen Age 2003, as well as being twice nominated for the Red House Children's Book Award.

The biggest story in children's fiction in the early twenty-first century is, of course, the incredible global success that is . Joanne Rowling famously wrote the first instalment in various Edinburgh cafes, and Scotland has remained her home: she owns a house in Edinburgh and Killiechassie House in Perthshire, where she married her husband. It is hard to judge what is the greatest achievement represented by the Harry Potter phenomenon: the more-than 325 million books sold in 64 languages; the fact that each of the last four instalments broke the previous record for the fastest-selling book in publishing history; or that the boy wizard's adventures have convinced nine-year-olds to read eight-hundred page novels.

Harry Potter

The novels are being adapted into a hugely successful series of big-budget Hollywood movies, and the next children's book to find its way to the big screen could be from another Scottish-based writer. Julia Donaldson, who lives in Glasgow, won the 1999 Smarties Prize (in the 0-5 category) for her successful illustrated book The Gruffalo, and won "Best Children's Book" in the 2005 British Book Awards for its sequel, . Both books have been adapted as stage musicals, and though hopes of a big screen version are yet to be realised, the movie rights to the books have been the subject of a bidding war between competing film companies.

Modern Scotland has plenty to offer to readers of all ages. As well as our vibrant literary scene and flourishing publishing industry, Scotland is host to numerous events offering readers the chance to get together with each other and with authors and publishers. Edinburgh, UNESCO's first International City of Literature, is the home of the Edinburgh Book Festival, one of the highlights of the literary calendar, every August, drawing in authors and visitors from all over the world. 2007's festival attracted 650 authors from 40 different countries and more than 200,000 visitors. Coming up in Scotland's National Book Town, Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway, is the Wigtown Book Festival (28 September-7 October), with over a quarter of a million old and new books to choose from. Dozens of smaller events regularly take place up and down the country, and there is guaranteed to be something for everyone whether young, or young at heart.

Popular Tales of the West Highlands

J.M. Barrie

Jacqueline Wilson

Carnegie Medal

Theresa Breslin

Julia Donaldson

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Wigtown Book Festival

Book Events in Scotland